When he meets later this week with Cyrus Vance, Randall Robinson will undoubtedly touch on the delicate question raised by Andrew Young's retirement as U.N. ambassador: Just what is American's relationship with the Palestine Liberation Organization to be? Vance's answer could determine the extent of good will the Carter administration enjoys among blacks distressed at Young's fall from grace.
"In 1978 Ian Smith visited this country with a visa granted in violation of U.N. sanctions against Rhodesia," says Robinson, the 38-year-old executive director of Transafrica, a young lobbying organization of blacks concerned with Africa and the Caribbean. "Vance met with Smith. Then Bishop Muzorewa [prime minister of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia] came in violation of U.N. sanctions and was invited to Camp David to meet with the president. We were told the administration found it useful to talk to all sides, no matter how loathsome the regime."
Robinson cannot square America's hands-off attitude toward the PLO with those invitations. And if he has his way, Transafrica will someday have the political clout necessary to bring others around to his way of thinking; Robinson intends to recruit supporters in congressional districts whose representatives Transafrica wants to influence.
If Robinson looks familiar, it's because his older brother is ABC network anchorman Max Robinson. As Max has prospered on TV, so has Randall in politics. With a law degree from Harvard, Randall Robinson went on to spend six months in Tanzania. He returned to protest the amount of money his alma mater invested in South Africa -- as a young lawyer he occupied the office of his friend and former law school dean, Harvard University President Derek Bok. After a stint working in Congress [last with Rep. Charles Diggs], Robinson became the $31,000-a-year point man for blacks who began Transafrica to represent their foreign policy interests in Washington.
"Foreign policy is not made in a vacuum," says Robinson. "It's made by people, by citizens. Blacks comprise 12 per cent of the citizenry and a natural consequence of this is that we have a responsibility and duty to participate in the formulation of foreign policy. There's a core in this country that is largely WASP that sees itself as the standard America. They say, 'We are American and we make foreign policy. All these other ethnic groups such as Greek-Americans or Italian-Americans want to distort American policy in their own interests, in response to whatever terrestrial fountainhead that they came from.'
"Is that any different from what the WASP has done and the relationship with Western Europe? We are as authentically American citizens as they. It's ridiculous to ask what black Americans are doing getting involved in foreign policy, as if it were made on the moon."
Leaving aside the Young flap, Robinson says his board of directors of prominent black leaders is most concerned about America's dealings with South Africa.
"When Africa looks at the U.S. and its South African policies, it sees the U.S. receiving Smith and Muzorewa. It sees investments, diplomats there, American companies making enormous profits because of slave wages paid under apartheid to the black majority. It sees no willingness on the part of Western parties to apply sanctions to South Africa or to seriously apply them to Rhodesia," says Robinson. "No black American or African believes were the tables reversed in South Africa -- were blacks repressing whites the way whites are repressing blacks -- would America be so deeply and profitably invested in that system."
This week's meeting with Vance is one of several Transafrica members have had with administration officials over the last year. It will be the first since Young left the administration. And for an administration trying to step carefully out of a long, hot summer of controversy, the perceptions of Randall Robinson and his colleagues could have political consequences next year.